Sunday, March 12, 2017

Douglas Messerli | "Dreams Destroyed by Hate" (on Luiz Valdez' Zoot Suit)

dreams destroyed by hate
by Douglas Messerli

Luis Valdez (writer and director), music by Lalo Guerrero Zoot Suit / Los Angeles, the Mark Taper Forum, the performance Howard Fox and I saw was on March 11, 2017

I will begin this short essay on the Mark Taper Forum revival of Luis Valdez’ Zoot Suit by confirming that this legendary Los Angeles-based musical-drama is still a powerful and moving document. People gasped several times during the matinee performance I attended yesterday with my spouse, Howard Fox, at the contemporary currency of many of the play’s comments. At one point, when the Lieutenant and corrupt Judge (Richard Steinmetz) declares that at a time of war (the play begins in 1942), faced with so many enemies, there is no room in the US for “outsiders,” you could openly hear the audience ruminate the resonance of the lines given Trump’s current utterances. 
       At another moment, after being released from more than a year in prison for a crime that none of them committed, one of the so-called Chicano 38th Street gang, Ishmael “Smiley” Torres (Raul Cardona), reports that there is no place for him any longer in Los Angeles and that he intends to move to Arizona; the audience laughed and hooted, clearly referencing their knowledge of the bigoted actions of former Arizona sheriff Joseph Michael "Joe" Arpaio, and the continued conservative immigration attitudes of that state.
       The mostly younger cast, headed by the trickster figure, El Pachuco (Demian Bichir), played their roles well and danced with enthusiasm. The lead character, Henry Reyna (Matias Ponce), his gang-member partners, the already mentioned “Smiley,” Tommy Roberts (Caleb Foote), and Joey Castro (Oscar Camacho), and the women in Henry’s life, Della Barrios (Jeanine Mason) and Alice Bloomfield (Tiffany Dupont) are all charming performers, and help to make this work riveting.
       And then, there are all those wonderful Lalo Guerrero songs: “Zoot Suite Boogie,” “Chucos Suaves,” “Vamos a Bailar,” and “Marijuana Boogie”; my only wish was that there had been more.*
       The original play opened at the Mark Taper Forum in 1978, with a cast that included Edward James Olmos, Daniel Valdez, Tyne Daly, Lupe Ontiveros, Tony Plana, Robert Beltran, and many other noted actors, not only ran in sold out performances at the Taper, but was so successful that it continued throughout the year at the Aquarius Theater. New York, however, did not quite take to the work, and on Broadway it ran for only 41 performances.
       As the author, himself, notes, “Zoot Suit is a quintessential Los Angeles play. It represents the fabric of the city, the internal strife, the Sturm und Drang of Los Angeles, what forced it to be the city it is today.” 
     The central focus of Valdez’ work is the notorious Sleepy Lagoon Murder of August 2, 1942, where 21 innocent, mostly Chicano, zoot-suit-wearing young men were arrested and convicted in a sham trial—as the play presents it, the young men were forced to remain in their elaborate suits throughout the trial, and were forced to stand with every mention of their name, while simultaneously being kept apart from their defense lawyer, George Shearer (Brian Abraham)—and were sentenced to life imprisonment for a murder that, quite apparently, was committed by another, Downey-based gang.
       But the real point here is not so much guilt or innocence, but the entire notion of what it means to be an outsider in a world in which you live. To the LA press and prosecutors, the very fact that these young men dressed differently from others and represented a different cultural perspective, proved their unworthiness. The Japanese had already been shuffled off to internment camps (see my pieces in My Year 2007 and My Year 2015), and it only followed, as it does in all times when people feel threatened by what they do not know, that the young Chicano men should also feel the country’s wrath. Throughout the US, but particularly in Los Angeles, soldiers and sailors, after the arrestment of the zoot suiters, randomly attacked young men wearing what they saw as peacock-like costumes, virtually, if not literally, raping them, stripping their clothes from their backs. Later in the play, we see the sad consequences of this, as Henry’s younger brother, Rudy (Andres Ortiz), now a Marine uniform, recounts how he was so attacked. He resents his brother simply not being there to protect him.
      The zoot suits represented many things: the possibility of wealth, the differentness of  identity, and, yes, a preening of the male ego. But here, we realize that it had become almost a sign of meaningful dress as important to the young Chicanos as the Marine, Navel, and Army uniforms were to the others. The sad, so very sad fact was that Henry Reyna, the charismatic leader who had already been wrongly arrested several times, had dreamed and hoped for a life of normalcy, and was planning a few days after from the Sleepy Lagoon events to join the navy. What might his life have been if he had given that simple opportunity?
       As it was, even though hundreds of well-meaning Los Angeles citizens, including celebrities, fought for his freedom, his year-long prison stay would inevitably change his life forever, and, as we are told in a kind of prelude to the ending, he eventually was arrested again for burglary, killing a fellow prisoner, and finally dying in the 1970s, a broken man.
      But the narrator El Pachuco “revisits” that ending, describing the brief life stories of others involved and transforming the criminal facts to the explanation of his involvement within his community, as husband and father to children. Yet, by this time we know El Pachuco is a far from reliable narrator. In his attempts to repeat the worst of the facts of racial hatred and its terrible results, he mocks and challenges any of the young Henry’s dreams for a better life, and it is only when Henry fights back from that viewpoint of desperation that he has the possibility to change it. The trickster is just that, a man who helps keep his own kind down by daily reminding his fellow men and women of their own cultural perspective and how others, outside of that, actually see them. How different might have been Henry’s life been, if instead of being forced by his family’s sense of responsibility to marry his youthful Mexican-American love, if he had been able to cross the cultural divide and married the beautiful Gabacho, Alice; yet, she now also sees herself as an outsider, and fears its ramifications. Besides, her own relatives are now being killed in Poland and Nazi Germany. Despite her need to reach out to help others, she cannot truly help herself.
        Despite my deep respect and admiration of this work, however, I left the theater feeling that the whole had not quite been integrated. Basically, it is a series of dramatic events interrupted by song and dance, and while that can often be, as in Brecht and Weill’s great works, a remarkable combination, here the parts feel a big unhinged, particularly since, I believe, the spoken drama parts were accomplished without microphone, while the song and dance numbers were accompanied with canned music and heavily miked songs.

     Coming out of the United Farm Workers, El Teatro Campesino performances, moreover, Valdez was never quite able to link the various tableaux of his tale in a truly integral way. Even as we are moved by its many parts, the parts still seem not to be quite woven into a whole. Finally, I’m not sure the gravely-voiced Birchir was quite strong to play host to the work’s many disparate parts.
     Still, I wouldn’t have missed this revival for anything in the world. We all need to be reminded again and again of the horrible histories that have transpired in Los Angeles—as well as so many other American cities—throughout the years. What happened to these 21 boys happened elsewhere to Emmet Till, what happened to Emmet Till happened to the entire West Coast Japanese community, and what happened to the Japanese happened again to Rodney King, all of which is threatening to happen all over again. And one cannot say enough about the bravery of figures like Gordon Davidson, the original founder of this very theater, who died late last year, and offered up his stage in 1978 to this play’s Luis Valdez. 
      Certainly, the audience at the performance I saw—so very different from the elderly graying-haired audiences of so many of my theater events—clearly enjoyed this exploration of cultural history, raucously applauding even the minor figures, such as Reyna’s mother and father (Rose Portillo and Daniel Valdez), as much for their titular roles, as the major actors.

Los Angeles, March 12, 2017
Reprinted from USTheater, Opera, and Performance

*In the past few years, through Howard’s work on a show at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art of the artist Carlos Almarez—who, incidentally, created a mural for the original production of this play—we have become friends with Daniel Guerrero, himself an outsized theatrical figure, the son of the US National Heritage treasure, Lalo.


No comments:

Post a Comment